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Revolver (three).

So why am I not liking Stone? —As much as I’d like to, anyway.

Well. Open the book to the foreword, cribbed from Quanta: Essays on Quantum Physics by one Kurt Soldan, and follow along as we trip through the fourth paragraph:

You have heard of the famous thought-experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat. The cat lives in an opaque box. It so happens that opening the box will kill the cat, because of the way the box is constructed. We cannot see into the box, or X-ray the box, or anything like that. But we want to know whether the cat is alive or dead inside the box. If we open the box to look, then it is certainly dead—but is it alive or dead now, before we open the box? The quantum moral of this story is that the cat is alive and dead at the same time. It inhabits both states of being simultaneously; what happens when we open the box is that our action of opening the door collapses these quantum probabilities into one single pattern, the pattern being ‘the cat is dead.’ Schrödinger’s famous cat will test the suppleness of your mind, I promise you. You want to think ‘Well, either the cat is alive or it is dead, and by opening the box we find one or the other to be the case.’ But that is not the way it is at the level of the quantum; at the level of the quantum it is ‘the cat is alive and dead until it is observed, and then the act of observation collapses the probability wave-form into a single determined pattern—dead, in this case.’

Now, I am not a physicist. (Ha!) But I read something that pig-ignorant, and I reach for my gun.

Oh, don’t gimme none more o’ that ol’ quantum physics,
No, don’t you gimme none more o’ that ol’ quantum physics,
For my head will fly, my tongue will lie, my eyes will fry and my cat may die—
Won’t you pour me one more o’ that sinful ol’ quantum physics.

The cat was never supposed to be both. “One can even set up quite ridiculous cases,” said Erwin Schrödinger, before setting forth his famous paradox:

One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a “blurred model” for representing reality. In itself it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.

Schrödinger is talking about the usefulness of the “foundation of intuitive imagination”—the map, the model, the tool, the image—one must use to take hold of something like quantum mechanics. But be careful—

Of course one must not think so literally, that in this way one learns how things go in the real world. To show that one does not think this, one calls the precise thinking aid that one has created, an image or a model. With its hindsight-free clarity, which cannot be attained without arbitrariness, one has merely insured that a fully determined hypothesis can be tested for its consequences, without admitting further arbitrariness during the tedious calculations required for deriving those consequences. Here one has explicit marching orders and actually works out only what a clever fellow could have told directly from the data! At least one then knows where the arbitrariness lies and where improvement must be made in case of disagreement with experience: in the initial hypothesis or model. For this one must always be prepared. If in many various experiments the natural object behaves like the model, one is happy and thinks that the image fits the reality in essential features. If it fails to agree, under novel experiments or with refined measuring techniques, it is not said that one should not be happy. For basically this is the means of gradually bringing our picture, i.e., our thinking, closer to the realities.

(Which is a neat explication of the basic scientific method, minus peer-reviewed journals and grant applications; its application to the debate over, say, creationism as a scientific enterprise, is left to some other digression.) —The cat was only ever a warning, a “ridiculous case” demonstrating what happens when you try to use your image, your map, your tool where it doesn’t apply, a blurred photo and not a crisp snapshot. “Of course the cat can’t be both alive and dead at the same time!” says Schrödinger. “The wave function, the psi-function, the system vector—it works, but it’s not all that yet! We have work yet to do to bring our picture closer to the realities! What part of ‘serious misgivings arise if one notices that the uncertainty affects macroscopically tangible and visible things, for which the term “blurring” seems simply wrong’ do you not understand?”

But quantum mechanics is hard, and strange, and that cat-in-a-box is a vivid image, ennit? And so over the years that original ridiculous case has been worn down to a nubbin of a shibboleth: quantum mechanics is so fuckin’ strange, man, there’s like, this cat? That’s alive and dead? At the same time? —To the point that “Kurt Soldan” can write an essay, a whole series of essays, apparently, on quantum mechanics, and can conjure up the cat without even mentioning the thing that makes the gedankenexperiment quantum in the first place: there’s no radioactive substance balanced precisely on a fifty-fifty shot of an atom decaying over the course of an hour, set to trigger a mini-Goldberg deathtrap if it does; instead, there’s just a box impermeable to observation that will kill the cat if you open it. Pop quiz, smart guy: is that cat alive, or dead? Well? You can’t peek inside! You can’t X-ray it! Ha! It ain’t either! It’s both, until you open that box and kill the cat! “If you did not observe,” says our friend Soldan, “the cat would continue to exist in a quantum probability soup. But by observing you collapse the probabilities into a certainty.” (But that’s from later, when Soldan’s talking about a nano-cat, ten atoms long. Is it here? Or there? —You see that look that just passed over some of the audience’s faces? You just spotted the physicists. You want to make ’em look like that again? Tell ’em in all earnestness you heard that quantum computers are so fast because they use CPU cycles on all the infinite copies of themselves sitting idle in all the other infinite manyworld multiverses out there.) —It’s not a sharp photo of a cloud that sort of looks like a cat, it’s an impressionistic watercolor of the feed from somebody’s catcam. It’s using a hammer to adjust the focal length of your laser. It’s using a Portland street map to plot a course to alpha Centauri. It’s a dim echo of a half-understood metaphor hauled out and ginned up to lay the foundation for what I’m afraid is one of the book’s hedgehogs:

And this is the most profound implication of all, the deepest philosophical shake-down; because it follows from this that it is our observation—our power, as sentient intelligences to make the observation—that determines the universe the way it is.

Well, yes, in the sense that specifically observing a particle on the quantum level makes it do things it wouldn’t do if it weren’t observed, and there’s all sorts of neat stuff like quantum cryptography that spins off of that, and you’ve got the Copenhagen interpretation and the Many-Worlds interpretation and the Transactional interpretation (which makes me think of warm fuzzies and cold pricklies hopping back and forth across Planck lengths like fuzzy Maxwell’s demons, silver hammers glinting in the—what? Why are you glaring at me like that?), and you’ve got all sorts of freaky optics experiments that would have made Newton even grumpier than he famously was. But what you don’t have is a goddamn cat that’s neither alive nor dead in a goddamn box somewhere, and from that you can’t determine that your sentience, that self-aware sliver of spacetime just behind your eyeballs, your I-ness, has some anthropocentrically mystical ability to kill that cat or keep it alive just by observing it. (Or, opening the impermeable box. Which kills the cat, in Soldan’s example. The cat presumably being alive otherwise, since there’s nothing else to kill it. Except maybe lack of food, or water. Or air. Since it’s an impermeable box. —And if it’s sentience that pops the cork, don’t you think the cat would have a say in the whole affair?)

The last book I literally threw across the room was Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, on or about the fourth or maybe fifth time the girl physicist was openly pitied by the omniscient third-person narrator for being female, and so not as smart as the boys, and prone to flighty panic, and in need of comfort; maybe it was when her stateroom was decorated with frilly pink windowshades. I can’t remember the precise moment. But! I’ve figuratively thrown many other books across many other rooms for crimes less than this. —It’s one thing to make your way through your particular quotidian routine, ignorant of this or that point of quantum mechanics and the gedankenexperiments that tease them into shape. It’s another thing entirely to claim the authoritative mantle of science fiction with such a baldly shaky grasp of the science involved.

I should probably note: the most prominent Kurt Soldan on Google is a music critic, and no bookfinder I have at my fingertips can turn up the spoor of his Quanta: Essays on Quantum Physics, and anyway, anyone who’s read Dune and its ilk ought to stroke their chins thoughtfully at the aggressive blandness of that citation. Which is why I’m laying Soldan’s sins at Roberts’ feet. —So the possibility exists that this foolery could be deliberately that: foolery, in service of a point yet to be made. (Not quite halfway through the book yet, and I did just read a grippingly horrific murder scene.) I don’t hold out hope, though: the mystical enthronement of sentience is a key to how his FTL travel works, and it’s a sucker’s bet that observation isn’t a key to how the corker of a plot works out. (Besides: if Roberts is capable of japery on such an infuriating level, he’s got a killer deadpan. —But if “Kurt Soldan” wanders onstage, I can’t be held responsible for what will become of my copy.)

And yet: this isn’t what I’m trying to get at. I reached for my gun; I threw the book across the room. But I can put up with a lot to get whatever-it-is I’m after. I can deal with this. I can accept this book on its own science-fantastickal premise and go from there. Right? I’m a mensch. I can pick it back up again.

It wasn’t till later that I found it wasn’t what I was after, so much.

  1. julia    Jun 3, 05:50 PM    #
    See, I think the whole Schroedinger's cat thing is the perfect example of observation bias - I'm perfectly certain the cat knows what's going on before you open the lid. Or, you know, doesn't, but that's a data point too.

  2. Robert Walker-Smith    Jun 4, 08:25 AM    #
    This reminded me of the hoary physics department graffito -

    Teller -
    Can you feed my cat while I'm out of
    town? I asked Heisenberg, but he's not
    sure if he can't make it.
    Schrodinger

    Or the note in the preface to 'Schrodinger's Cat' by RA Wilson, to the effect that all of the characters in the book are both/either Pavlov's Dog and Schrodinger's Cat, depending on how you're looking at them. Eigenstates, and all that. Of course, Wilson makes "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" look like hard science.

    The issue of 'but the cat knows' raises the question (for me at least) of how can we imagine phenomena that have _no_ observer - the whole tree-in-the-forest paradox. I cheated on that one in college by saying that it wouldn't make a sound, but it would produce vibrations in the air.

  3. Martin Wisse    Jun 5, 03:47 AM    #
    Roberts tend to do that a lot:

    SPOILERS

    his second novel _On_ is based on a piece of physics that seems very dodgy to me: Earth's gravity field is rotated ninety degrees so that it doesn't 'pull downwards' anymore, but works perpundicular (if that's the world I'm needing) to the Earth's surface so it becomes one huge mountain.

    This wouldn't have been so bad if the resulting story was interesting enough, but I found it to be somewhat dull and ultimately pointless.

    He started life as a critic and still works in the English department of the university of London, which might explains his flaws as a writer, both the bad science and the somewhat stilted flat language.

    You can poke around my booklog for extended reviews of _Salt_ and his book on science fiction, if you so desire.


  4. Gerry Quinn    Jan 18, 04:03 PM    #

    On got a ton of praise from critics who were impressed by the four pages of general relativistic equations Roberts put in an appendix. But I’m pretty sure it’s long proven that any solution of GR in asymptotically flat spacetime honours conservation of energy, and Robert’s ‘solution’ clearly doesn’t.

    Salt was pretty good IMO, but contains howlers in terms of the simple tonnage of chemicals needed to affect the atmosphere of a planet.

    Probably he does it on purpose.


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